For tiny, impoverished Moldova, welcoming Ukrainians combines kindness and economic interest

Ukrainian refugee children eat in Palanca, Moldova, on February 28. Moldova and other neighbors of Ukraine have accepted thousands of refugees since the start of the Russian invasion.Viorel Barbanoua/The Globe and Mail


For three decades, one of the poorest countries in Europe has been empty: more than a million people have left Moldova since 1991. They are still leaving, at the rate of 35,000 a year. Across the country, 100,000 homes are empty.

Today, Ukrainian refugees are pouring into Moldova – more than 88,000 so far – and its government and businesses are scrambling to give them the opportunity to work through acts of charity that coincide with a national need for workers. artwork.

The government is sweeping away the legal obstacles to their employment and opening its classrooms to Ukrainian teachers. Meanwhile, companies are offering jobs for graphic designers, office managers, construction workers, restaurant staff, and computer scientists.

It’s part of an outpouring of national generosity that has seen Moldovans drive hours to border points to pick up foreigners and landlords offer guest rooms to fleeing families in need of a place to sleep.

“We can’t ignore their difficult times,” said Mihaela Lavrov, office manager at Purcari, the country’s oldest winery, which allowed people to sleep for free at its wine chateau – and rented a hotel from a another place for extra beds.

MURAT YUKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: GRAPHIC NEWS VIA AP, BLOOMBERG AND REUTERS

Welcoming refugees has become such a national effort that traffic accidents and crime rates have fallen by around a fifth in recent days as Moldovans focus on helping those arriving in their country.

But the tide of people also represents an economic opportunity to bring skills to a country that is struggling to keep its most talented at home. Refugees “should be economically integrated and earn money,” said Igor Grosu, speaker of the Moldovan parliament, in an interview. Moldova has already simplified procedures for Ukrainians to open bank accounts, enroll their children in local schools and access health care.

“If these refugees decide to stay in Moldova, they are welcome. It would be a solution for them – and it would help Moldova,” said Veaceslav Ionita, a former MP who is now a public finance expert at the Institute for Development and Social Initiatives, an independent think tank.

“Because in my opinion, the biggest challenge for Moldova in the next two or three years is that it has no workers.”

The country’s booming IT sector, which has doubled in size every two years, could easily absorb 5,000 people, he said. Another 5,000 could quickly find work in car manufacturing, another growing industry. Local construction companies have jobs for another 5,000.

Scenes from the border between Ukraine and Moldova near Palanca: refugees waiting for transport, a dog sits in its cage.Viorel Barbanoua/The Globe and Mail; NIKOLAY DOYCHINOV/AFP via Getty Images

As the refugees arrived, Moldovan companies moved very quickly to offer jobs to Ukrainians.

In Chisinau, the National Association of Information and Communication Technology Companies offered a free coworking space.

Association president Veaceslav Kunev said he responded to dozens of requests for help finding work. “I created new jobs to help refugees,” he said, adding that he had the capacity to open 10 data entry positions.

Anastasia Nistor, owner of a branding firm, has opened a job as an office manager that she says might appeal to a mother who wants to work while being able to take care of the children.

Since Ukraine banned men of military age from leaving the country, most refugees are women with young children. Ms Nistor is a mum of toddlers herself and ‘I can bring a lot of toys because my house is full of toys,’ she said.

She also hopes refugees arriving in Moldova will include a graphic designer, who is someone “we really need”.

Ukrainians carry their belongings to Palanca.Viorel Barbanoua/The Globe and Mail

Moldova has successfully used tax incentives to attract IT companies, but has struggled to staff them with people with specialized skills. It’s unclear, however, how many people with such talents want to stay in a small country with a sleepy capital.

“Most highly skilled Ukrainian IT professionals are considering moving to Europe,” Kunev said.

Indeed, more than half of the Ukrainians who have entered Moldova have already left, heading to more developed parts of Europe, further away from a war that is becoming increasingly bloody.

“Moldova is too close,” said Vitaliia Shcherbakova, who left Ukraine on Monday. “We don’t know what’s going to happen – and Putin said something about nuclear weapons. So we want to be as far away as possible.

Yet the country’s government is preparing for a number of them to stay. Less wealthy Ukrainians “will prefer to be closer to home,” Grosu said.

It is not a question of thinking of “economic benefit” but of “humanitarian assistance” to welcome them into Moldovan society, he said, and “to give them the opportunity to contribute, to work”.

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